G7 de-risks on China and supports Ukraine. Australia re-risks and shuffles feet.
PM Kishida meets President Zelensky

PM Kishida's active support of Ukraine contrasts with Australian inaction.

Written by

Michael Shoebridge

Australia’s attendance at the G7 and Quad leaders meetings in Japan helps Anthony Albanese back home. It portrays him as a respected, influential international leader. But the price of sitting at these tables isn’t smiling and participating in photo opportunities, it’s action – and that’s where the problems can often start.

The G7 did serious work on supply chain security, managing the economic risks from international inflation and climate change, and Australian contributions were straightforward. But both the G7 and Quad also focused on managing a more aggressive China and supporting Ukraine in the face of Vladimir Putin’s brutal war. Both are fraught territory for the government.

On Ukraine, Australia has moved from an active, front-foot supporter of President Volodymyr Zelensky and his military to a country desperate not to be asked what it has done lately.

And on China, the clear Australian government objective is to not create a ripple in the monster’s pond. Its approach is that nothing can be allowed to disturb the glacial lifting of Beijing’s coercive trade restrictions. Even more importantly, nothing must get in the way of the headline: “Albanese meets Xi”.

But keeping very still and hoping other leaders make the running is a path to Australia having less influence and presence at future G7 meetings. More practically, in becoming part of the slow-moving crowd that provides grudging support to Ukraine, Australia can help create what Putin is banking on and the Ukrainian people fear: waning Western support as they fight a grinding war against Russia.

The contrast between Australia and Japan here is sobering. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida used his position as host of the G7 to put Ukraine at the middle of the agenda, including through Zelensky’s surprise trip to Hiroshima. His government is bringing seriously wounded Ukrainian soldiers to Japan for treatment.

Kishida also ensured Beijing’s economic coercion would feature strongly in the G7 work plan, and stepped up to hold a Quad leaders meeting when the Sydney meeting fell over.

Albanese provided old news. On Ukraine it was stale reminders of now dated support to Ukraine. The recent low point was protesting that a mechanical fault prevents us from providing the Ukrainian military with Hawkei military vehicles.

On China, it was all about letting others say anything remotely critical of Beijing’s authoritarian directions and their adverse consequences for security and prosperity. While in Hiroshima, Mr Albanese told us Putin’s war and the troubled global economy were reminders “that none of us, even those island continents like Australia are islands when it comes to dissociating ourselves from the global economy and from global events”.

Stirring stuff, but engagement is more than meetings and rhetoric, it’s about substance.

So it would be a good use of his flight home for our PM to push his bureaucracy, and the bigger one over at Russell Hill, to put together a new, substantial package of military support for Ukraine, and do so with urgency. A new support package could include: 100 more Bushmasters; 100 Hawkei smaller off-road vehicles, useful as missile launch platforms, and; drones and counter-drone systems from small Australian companies such as EOS, Defendtex and C2 Robotics. He could also offer our recently retired F/A-18 fighter jets, now the constraints on providing US fighter aircraft are lifting.

None of this would reduce our own security, and this package would provide very practical military hardware the Ukrainian military needs to push the Russians back.

In parallel, as he contemplates the implications of his China policy, Albanese has to find a way out of being wedged by Xi Jinping as the price for pausing economic coercion. The problem is that by October or November, when Albanese hopes to shake Xi’s hand, Xi will have made further hard line moves. By then his emerging security-driven crackdown on foreign firms will have had real human consequences – such as arrests of foreign citizens. Xi’s military will be intimidating the Taiwanese people during their presidential election campaign, and seizing more control in the South China Sea from countries such as Vietnam.

Meanwhile, the EU, Japan, G7 and the US will all have further developed their approach to de-risking their economic relationships with China, going in the opposite direction to current Australian China policy. So, Australian policy is to re-risk our economic relationship with China right when our partners are de-risking theirs.

Xi will want Albanese’s visit to showcase how well he is managing foreign policy and to demonstrate that his repressive moves are problem-free. He’ll want Albanese to talk about economic opportunities to prop up the illusion of Chinese “reform and opening up” against the nastier reality of increasing control and coercion. Doing so will dent Albanese’s credibility with allies and partners, just as French President Emmanuel Macron’s poorly chosen words did during his visit with Xi last month.

Depending on how much Albanese realises is at stake, and how willing he is to push reluctant officials, we might look back on the 2023 G7 and Quad leaders meetings as the high water mark of Australian influence on security and countering Beijing’s economic coercion. That would leave shaping our security and prosperity to others.

We can and should do better.

A version of this article was first published by The Australian.